If you've ever wondered what The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles would be like transported to mid-1980s northern England, you'll get a pretty good idea in the charming six episode miniseries The Beiderbecke Affair, which manages to capture a lot of the clever banter, if not the underlying mystery, of the famed Powell-Loy franchise. Instead of a dapper millionaire alcoholic and his adoring wife, we instead are treated to two middle school teachers (James Bolam and Barbara Flynn), more or less romantically involved with each other, who find themselves caught up in at least a little intrigue, if not outright mystification, as they attempt to unravel various doings in their little English village. As a mystery, The Beiderbecke Affair falls flat, frankly. As an absolutely sparkling character study, weirdly reminiscent of Local Hero in a peculiar way, The Beiderbecke Affair is often laugh out loud hilarious while always maintaining a finely wry observational eye on various behavioral quirks of the characters it follows.
The Beiderbecke Affair follows the relationship of Trevor Chaplin (Bolam), a woodworking teacher, and his semi-paramour Jill Swinburne (Flynn), an English teacher who is also running as an environmental candidate for Town Council. Chaplin, a jazz fanatic (hence the title, culled from the famous cornet player 'Bix' Beiderbecke), is greeted one evening by a door to door saleswoman who promises she can deliver some records (remember LPs, anyone?) of Beiderbecke even though they're not in her official catalog. When Chaplin ends up getting the wrong albums, and it turns out another teacher who ordered from the same woman got a defective hedge trimmer (don't ask), that sets Chaplin out on a quixotic quest to find out if they've been intentionally duped or just both been victims of bad luck. That leads Chaplin and Swinburne to discover an underground "white market" run by the rampant unemployed of mid-80s Britain in order to help various townspeople get things at wholesale, if even that.
Trailing behind Chaplin and Swinburne through this convoluted labyrinth is a well-meaning, if overly zealous, policeman, Detective Sergeant Hobson (the hilarious Dominic Jephcott), who is convinced he's hot on the trail of a massive conspiracy that will help him rise to the top of his chosen profession. Unfortunately, he's stymied every step of the way by his superior (the equally hilarious Colin Blakely), who can't stand the fact that Hobson is college educated and possesses a vocabulary made of five dollar words. Over the course of the six episodes, it slowly becomes apparent that those whom you might assume are the bad guys are really the good guys, and vice versa, but there's no really potent villainy going on throughout any of this enterprise, which achieves its fizziness through some very sharp and funny dialogue while never taking its mystery element (such as it is, which isn't much) too seriously.
Bolam and Flynn are perfectly matched in this little gem, with a number of great moments that evoke Nick and Nora's pungent use of non sequiturs and, conversely, overly literal interpretations. "Will you be long," Chaplin asks Swinburne as he drops her off at a municipal office building where she's looking into planning committee irregularities. "A slimly built 5 foot 5, as usual," she responds, with typically dry British humor, something Alan Plater's teleplay has in abundance. Bolam's doleful, sad sack presence makes for a nice counterweight to Flynn's more self-assured, take no prisoners character. The other dynamic duo of the piece is the police duet of Jephcott and Blakely, each of whom are completely delightful as they essay an over eager youngster and his jaded elder.
The entire supporting cast of The Beiderbecke Affair is similarly excellent, including Terence Rigby as "Big Al," the leader of the "white market" brigade, whose acolytes are always his "brothers" or "sisters." Alison Skilbeck also has some nice moments as Helen, Trevor's ex-fiancee who shows up unexpectedly and creates a momentary ménage a trois. Best of all is Dudley Sutton as the acerbic Mr. Carter, co-hort teacher friend of Chaplin and Swinburne who manages some trenchant commentary about school, Britain, and the younger generation, including one classic involving deviant sex and taking over England. Directors David Reynolds and Franklin W. Smith keep the character work spot on and finely focused, while also setting up some relatively ambitious shots for a television production, including a lot of really excellent crane work. Frank Ricotti's Beiderbecke-influenced underscore is also quite excellent, jaunty and flapper-esque to the hilt (though when a more traditional swingin' big band arrangement of "On a Clear Day" pops up in the final episode, it seems like an aural misnomer).
If you're looking for a mind-boggling mystery, this is certainly not the show to invest your time in. It is featherweight, breezy and with nary a red herring in site. This is really a bubbly little character comedy wrapped up in a pseudo-mystery plotline about which you're probably not going to care very much, but which ultimately doesn't make much difference. There is so much finely tuned dialogue and outright hilarity here that the lack of a real mystery never is very bothersome.